- The use of singular they can be found as far back as the last 1300s.
- Singular they/them is especially useful when the sex or gender of the antecedent is unspecified.
- They/them as a singular pronoun is becoming widely accepted by several major style guides.
- In the modern world, singular they not only makes sentences less clunky, but also more inclusive.
- ○ Somebody left their bag at the store. I hope they come back for it.
The use of a singular they sparks a lot of debate in both the political and linguistics world. Many grammar police believe they or them as a singular pronoun is grammatically incorrect. Well, even if you push politics aside, there’s one thing that cannot be denied: The use of singular they has been around for a long, long time. Below we’ll go over the history of they, them, and their being used as a singular pronoun and their place in modern English.
“They,” “Them,” and “Their” as Singular Pronouns
To understand the use of they, them, and their as singular pronouns, you must first understand pronouns.
Pronouns replace nouns or noun phrases so that you don’t have to keep repeating them. To be more specific, personal pronouns take the place of the speaker or whom (or what) the speaker is referring to. It also carries information about points of view, singular or plural numbers, and more.
Gabriella went home from school early because she wasn’t feeling well.
In the sentence above, the personal pronoun she refers to “Gabriella.”
Sometimes, though, the gender or sex of the noun being replaced (or antecedent) is unknown. Let’s dissect the following example sentence:
Each new hire got a welcome package delivered to them.
In the sentence above, the sex or gender of the antecedent isn’t specified. Therefore, the best pronoun to use is them. Let’s review the sentence with the alternatives:
Each new hire got a welcome package delivered to him.
Each new hire got a welcome package delivered to him or her.
While the first alternative isn’t inclusive, the second is too wordy and clunky. The most concise option would be to use them as a singular pronoun. But maybe you’re writing in an extremely formal context or for your new boss, and you aren’t sure what their (see how it’s useful here?) take is on singular they. In that case, you can restructure the sentence and use plural they by making the subject plural, too.
All new hires got a welcome package delivered to them.
Using Singular “They” Today
They, them, and their as singular pronouns go beyond just being grammatically correct. In today’s world, there is an increasing number of people who identify outside the gender binary. In other words, they don’t identify as either male or female. These people don’t feel comfortable with he/him/himself or she/her/herself pronouns and opt-out for other choices. A popular choice is they, them, and their as their personal pronouns.
My friend Thomas doesn’t conform to the gender binary. They are extremely kind and generous.
“Themselves” or “Themself”?
The reflexive pronoun for they is still themselves, even when referring to an individual. When talking about a group, using the neo-pronoun themself is grammatically incorrect.
In the development of non-binary gender identities, themself is replacing themselves, which is considered as not standard.
When it comes to English grammar rules, sometimes it’s best to keep an open mind. Mainly because the language is constantly evolving and adapting. And trying to stick to the “old ways” of doing something is sure to drive anyone crazy. Everyone seems pretty content about being able to use the “singular you,” right? Well, you replaced thou, thee, and thy in the seventeenth century and met resistance. Can you imagine if we still used thou, thee, and thy today?
As humans evolve, so do languages. That’s why using a multilingual and intelligent text editor like LanguageTool is incredibly useful. Not only can it correct spelling and grammar mistakes in more than 20 languages, but it can provide stylistic improvements and make you aware of language change.